Edna’s process of self-discovery resulting in her transformation begins when she uncovers her past to Mrs. Ratignolle.
The second significant moment and I dare to say that the most important one, is Edna’s first swim. This experience can be viewed as the decisive step towards her self-realization because it symbolizes rebirth as well as maturation. It is also the beginning of Edna’s rebellion because through her ability to swim, she discovers her power.
When in the water, without “a hand near to reassure her” (27), Edna is described as “the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence” (27). Before her awakening, she is afraid to trust the sea although it attracts her. “The sea represents truth and loneliness, a vast expanse of solitude and vulnerability that Edna has long been afraid to enter” (27). However, her relationship with Robert causes that she begins to search her identity. When for the first time in her life and after many unsuccessful attempts, she is finally able to swim; it is a moment of wonder and absolute happiness.
Having learned to swim, Edna enjoys her newly gained ability of having control over her body. She “grew daring and overestimated her strength” when she wanted to swim “far out, where no woman had swum before” (27). We observe the swim to liberate her and at the same time make her independent on the help of others. As she finds the strength within herself, she relies on it, which makes her feel that she can do anything. She finds out that she is no longer dependent on others, she is herself..
She is strong enough and wants to explore unknown, wants to swim beyond the point that any woman at Grand Isle had swum. This appears to symbolize Edna’s awaken desire to escape of her conventional roles of mother and wife.
One woman, a woman unable to swim walks into the sea, and another, who has swum further than she expected possible, comes out. Awakened, reborn Edna does not yet understand her change completely: “A thousand emotions have swept through me tonight. I don’t comprehend half of them” (29). However, since that moment she is a new woman living a new life.
“How easy it is!” she thought. “It is nothing,” she said aloud; “why did I not discover before that it was nothing. Think of the time I have lost splashing about like a baby!” (27)
As the above extract shows, the awakened Edna is aware of her before awakening immaturity. During the first six years of her marriage, Edna always comforted to her husband’s authority as a child obeys their parents. Nevertheless, due to her first swim experience she decides no longer be ruled as a child. Due to the realization how easy the swimming is, she gains confidence and “I can manage anything” feeling.
She turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky, conveyed to her excited fancy. As she swam, she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself. (28)
As Anca Parvulescu states, “swimming and flying are metaphors of woman’s access to power” (3). While swimming, Edna awakened, left her childhood in the water and became an independent woman aware of her power. This woman can value herself and be her own person. She obeys nobody but herself -she stays outside when her husband asks her to go inside, she has a courage to even leave her husband and move into her own house, she can paint when she wants, she can love and even have illegitimate sex with whomever she chooses etc. She can become a “regal woman, the one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone” (88). Nevertheless, Edna‘s awakening is not complete because when looking back, the long distance between her and the shore seems to her “a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome. A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her senses. But by an effort she rallied her staggering faculties and managed to regain the land” (28).
Dread of death, however, reveals a downside to independence-one must rely on nothing but oneself. If viewing Edna’s attempt to swim far symbolically as swimming beyond the traditional conventions of motherhood and wifehood, Edna is not strong enough to succeed: “I never was so exhausted in my life” (28). Her lack of strength and isolation in the water could be understood as foreshadowing of her death. Through the sea which offered her a taste of mastery, Edna was beginning to “realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” (31).
Edna’s awakening to self-knowledge allows her to find out all the suppressed desires and needs, hidden and neglected for so many years. The series of the subsequent awakenings mirror her efforts to fulfil them.
3.6 Edna’s Sensual and Artistic Awakenings
Other of her awakenings Edna experiences due to Robert Lebrun, a young, attractive and carefree Creole bachelor who is the opposite of Edna’s husband. She feels the possibilities of entering another world through him. His flirtations with Edna cause that she desires more autonomy from her husband.
While being with Robert on a small boat travelling between land and a small island, Edna “felt as if she were being born away from some anchorage which had held her fast, whose chains had been loosening”(34). When at the island Robert is far from the society and conventions, he has courage to speak to Edna openly. When he expresses his feelings for Edna, she feels “the first-felt throbbing of desire” (35) and growing passion for him. She starts to be aware of her unvoiced thoughts and desires. the island, she takes a long, comfortable nap in the home of a stranger because of a violent headache. Before falling asleep, she, for the first time in her life, takes notice of her physical existence; she awakens to her physical self. Edna lies down after washing and examines her body, “as if it were something she saw for the first time, the fine, firm quality and texture of her flesh” (56).
When Edna wakes up the island seems to her changed:
“How many years have I slept?” she inquired. “The whole island seems changed. A new race of beings must have sprung up, leaving only you and me as past relics. How many ages ago did Madame Antoine and Tonie die? And when did our people from Grand Isle disappear from the earth?” (37)
This extract shows other stages and consequences of Edna’s awakening. Her transformation changed her perception of reality. She sees with different eyes and has a different look on the world around. The above lines reflect Edna’s desire to be isolated with Robert, free from other people, free from the society restrictions. However, it is obvious that Edna has moved into her own fantasy world that dangerously separates herself from reality. Mentally, she is already living with Robert, separated from others.
Nevertheless, Edna’s fantasies seem to be logical, because she is aware of obstacles their love would face in the real world. After Edna’s trip to the island, she felt she would never be the same as before and tried to discover why:
...wherein this summer had been different from any and every other summer of her life. She could only realize that she herself – her present self – was in some way different from other self. That she was making acquaintance of new conditions in herself that colored and changed her environment, she did not yet suspect. (40)
Edna’s artistic awakening comes through a talented pianist, Mlle. Reisz. Edna enjoys sketching her friend, finding in her art “satisfaction of a kind which no other employment afforded her” (30). Mlle. Reisz’s playing moves Edna to tears and through her music, she awakens to emotions she otherwise could not recognize. “It was not the first time she had heard an artist at the piano. Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth” (44).
Mlle. Reisz is odd in many ways, but she is a genuine artist. She is different through her appearance and behaviour but mainly through her talent and her commitment to art. Mlle. Reisz is “a disagreeable little woman, no longer young, who had quarrelled with almost everyone, owing to a temper which was self-assertive and a disposition to trample upon the rights of others” (44). Mlle. Reisz is also willing to appear unattractive and unfeminine because according to her, it is the impression that a truly courageous artist should give. Her playing moves Edna to tears and through her music, she awakens to emotions she otherwise could not recognize. Edna decides to listen to her awakened artistic ambitions and follow the example of Mlle. Reisz.
When Edna declares to Mlle. Reisz that “I am becoming an artist” (83), the older experienced woman speaks her on what this ambition entails. Talent is required, yes, but also more than talent; to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul, the brave soul that dares and defies” (83). Mlle. Reisz warns Edna that her artistic ambitions will require sacrifice as well as talent and practice. Although Edna seems to be excited about her art, the possibility that it could fill all her needs and desires appears faint. She is not as liberated as Mlle. Reisz.